Despite longer wait times in Hamilton County, officials encourage early voting

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / People wait in line to vote at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Early voting opened in Tennessee on Wednesday, Oct. 14 with people saying they waited for 90 minutes to just reach the door of the polling location at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center.

Despite longer wait times due to high turnout and COVID-19 restrictions, Hamilton County officials encourage early voting to produce a smoother Election Day.

In a year of record-breaking early voter turnout, some citizens experienced longer-than-usual wait times at polls across Hamilton County at the start of early voting. In many cases, though, the wait time looks worse than it is.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, long lines span the sidewalks at each polling place as a small number of voters enter the building at a time. Each precinct has about five check-in stations, a coronavirus compliance officer monitoring the safe entry of voters and limited capacity in the building. So, while 20-30 voting stations are available in any polling place, some are sitting idle because the building can't safely hold that many people.

"So, one of the reasons lines do appear longer is we're only allowing a certain number of people in the building at a time because of COVID, and we're asking people to stay the six-foot distance. So naturally lines are going to appear a little longer than they really are," interim Administrator of Elections Scott Allen said Friday. "But then once you're inside the building, you're processed and out of here within five to eight minutes, so the line does expand in the building like in the past when you would have another 30 minutes but once you're inside the building."

(READ MORE: Tennessee, Georgia smash previous early voting records in first days of November balloting)

Though lines seem intimidating, Allen said Friday that most people are in and out between 30 and 60 minutes, with some exceptions on peak time at busier polling places.

"Outside the lines are going to naturally appear longer but I believe that's just due to the fact that they use the same limited number that we're allowing inside. And just the historic turnout," Allen said. "A lot of people are getting discouraged by the looks of things, and we hate to see that. I mean here at the Election Commission, we have seen the way the line is snaking around. It'll go back towards the dumpster, which looks pretty intimidating, but we've learned that like if the line's at the dumpster, you're only about 20-25 minutes from being inside."

"But it looks much worse than it is," he said.

If you can't stand in line:

Those who have a disability or are unable to stand for long periods can go to the front of the line and see the COVID compliance officer to be let in without the wait.

Citizens have noticed some higher wait times - including an isolated internet outage that added nearly half an hour to some voters' wait time at the Election Commission on Friday - but most have experienced just what Allen described.

"It went really well. My wife and I both went at 4 p.m. and were done in 30 minutes," Andrew Steele wrote Friday on Twitter. "They had lots of great and informative volunteers that kept the line organized and moving really quickly. I was very impressed by how seriously they were taking COVID precautions. All in all, quick and easy."

Steele told the Times Free Press that he voted at the same location in the presidential primary and, while it was busier this week, it only took a few minutes longer.

"It was much busier yesterday, but they were prepared and had everything ready for longer lines. It did take about 10 minutes longer," he said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin voted Saturday, with Berke getting through in under 25 minutes and Martin spending a little over an hour.

Though the times are up slightly, Allen said people should still vote early for the most convenient experience because of probable bottlenecking on Election Day.

"Naturally, early voting is always a quicker process, because we have mostly full-time staff members and temporary workers running early voting, where Election Day is run by poll workers who do this three times a year," he explained. "The workers in early voting are a little more trained, so they're able to handle a lot more during early voting and they're able to handle people quicker. Plus it's all computerized, so if you have a change in an address, hey, we change it right there."

Allen did note the county had a number of problems with people either failing to bring required state identification or wearing clothing that promoted a specific candidate, which is prohibited within 100 feet of the door, that can slow down the process.

"We love to see the turnout and we are definitely happy to see you and to work with all the voters to get in and out as quick as possible," he said. "But we just encourage people to bring that Tennessee photo ID or passport and to make sure they're not wearing something that's not allowed, and that'll help them get through the lines faster."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

Acceptable IDs

*In Tennessee, one of the following types of identification is required to vote:Tennessee driver license with your photoUnited States PassportPhoto ID issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland SecurityPhoto ID issued by the federal or Tennessee state governmentUnited States Military photo IDTennessee handgun carry permit with your photo